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Government calls off negotiations on Bills 27/28: BCTF

The BC Teachers' Federation called a last-minute press conference in their Vancouver offices today to announce a government halt to negotiations over Bills 27 and 28.

"This is a sad day for teachers. And it's a sad day for the public education system in this province. Government has squandered an opportunity to respectfully restore teaching and learning conditions," says Susan Lambert, president of the teachers' union.

The Teachers' Federation (BCTF) and government have been locked in negotiations over the bills since the B.C. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in an April 13, 2011 ruling.

Introduced under then-Education Minister Christy Clark in 2002, the bills stripped teachers' rights to negotiate class size and composition as part of their collective bargaining agreement. Teachers say this eliminates their right to bargain their working conditions, and erodes the quality of education that students receive.

"They said that they will not consider replacing any contractual guarantees or repealing legislation that prohibits teachers from bargaining working conditions or repealing the old legislation that prohibited these things in their new corrective legislation," says Lambert.

*In an emailed statement to The Tyee current Education Minister George Abbott said he was disappointed they couldn't reach an agreement with the teachers, but says they were far apart on what they wanted new legislation to look like.

"We are willing to be flexible but we are not willing to abandon our principles. The province remains open to receiving proposals from the BCTF that meets those principles," he says.

"Those principles include providing greater choices to students and parents and helping to meet school district priorities. Funding must be used in a manner to achieve the best and most efficient educational opportunity for students. As well, school boards need to have the flexibility to be able to respond to the needs, interests and learning preferences of students in their district."

Lambert says "efficiency" is a code word for job and resource cuts. The BCTF claims 3,500 teaching jobs have already been eliminated in the past decade and further cuts can't happen without decreasing the quality of education students receive.

She countered that predictable, stable funding would provide efficiency, and that's what teachers are asking for, in addition to the right to negotiate class size and composition, adding that teachers in Alberta and Ontario have that right.

The last proposal on the table was from the union, which Lambert argues was more flexible than previous BCTF proposals, including a switch to a weighting formula for number of students with special needs per class instead of an absolute cap of three students per class.

Abbott says their proposal is "more extreme" than previous ones.

"What the union is now suggesting would require as much as a 50 per cent increase in the number of teachers in B.C. at a cost of more than $1 billion to resolve this matter. As a result, we find ourselves at an impasse," he says.

"We advised the BCTF at the outset of these discussions that, in order to meet the deadline imposed by the court, government would have to turn its mind to considering and preparing corrective legislation by the end of November, 2011 if we were not making any progress. We are at that point now."

The union is asking government to come back to the table to consider their proposal. But if they refuse, the union isn't ruling out bringing the government back to court when the new legislation is introduced.

"We'll have to see the legislation. Right now we haven't seen it. We know government has flatly refused any kind of guarantees of working conditions for teachers, and we know that legislation, as far as the communication as we were given today, will not contain that. Which means to me, there will be a persistence in violating those rights that were found to be in our constitution," says Lambert.

When asked about the separate collective bargaining negotiations with the BC Public School Employers Assocaition, an arm of the provincial government, was going, Lambert responded: "I was going to say it was snail's pace, but that would be a pace."

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth for the Tyee Solutions Society, and is a freelance reporter for a number of other outlets including The Tyee.

*Updated at 7 p.m. PST.

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